Piano recital a natural to begin fine-arts series

If you missed the introductory speeches, the Ching-Yun Hu piano recital Saturday at the William Way Center seemed so at home as to be a typical occurrence rather than the first in a new series of fine arts events.

The program, held in the grand reception era of the pre-Civil War building at 1315 Spruce St. that once housed the Engineers' Club of Philadelphia, was smart and ambitious. The full-house audience knew what it was hearing, and the demographics were fairly close to, say, an Astral Artists event, though with more same-sex couples, as one might expect at Philadelphia's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center.

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Ching-Yun Hu performed Beethoven, Scriabin, and Ravel at the William Way Center on Saturday.

The center's executive director, Christopher Bartlett, said he first considered a program of LGBT composers. Strictly speaking, that could be so limiting as to be musically unsatisfying, while also imposing a modern vision of gayness onto distant cultures that don't accommodate that.

By giving pianist Hu a freer rein for programming, Bartlett almost got his wish, in a beautifully sequenced program dominated by the possibly bisexual Scriabin and the nonsexual but certainly dandified Ravel. In performance, the Taiwan-born Hu showed herself to be a first-class talent, even if you didn't know in advance that she placed first at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition.

She kept her personality under wraps in Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 28 Op. 101, a work that's as attractive and outgoing as anything in the composer's middle period but with the spiritual vistas of his late period. Any pianist under the age of 50 is likely to maintain a respectful distance, and interpretively speaking Hu did, though her love for the piece was evident in her hesitation to let go of key harmonic resolutions.

The limitations of her somewhat dry-sounding Yamaha piano (larger than a baby grand but smaller than a full concert instrument) were more apparent in Scriabin and Ravel. Even so, her concentrated treatment of Scria-bin's Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 evoked an entrancing coloristic world. In Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, she conjured some incredibly sinister effects in the final moments, in a performance that graphically projected the poems on which each movement is based.

A more complete summation of her talent can be heard on her CD Ching-Yun Hu Plays Chopin (Archimusic). It more fully reveals her poetic use of color and confidently expressive phrasing in performances of works such as Barcarolle and Scherzo No. 4 that hold up with the best.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.